“What If There Is No Tomorrow?” Groundhog Day’s Existential Philosophy
“What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was the same and nothing mattered?” Phil Connors, the main character of Groundhog Day played by Bill Murray, asks one of the locals he’s drinking with at the bar.
“That about sums it up for me,” the man replies.
For the uninitiated, the 1993 film follows weatherman Phil Connors as he travels to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to see if Phil the groundhog will see his shadow — and then ends up trapped there. He wakes up on the same day, February 2, “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher on the radio alarm, over and over again. (It’s unclear in the film, but director Harold Ramis said that Phil spent 10 years stuck in Punxsutawney.) What passes as a comedy really serves as a film about humanity and the big questions that haunt us.
The phrase “groundhog day” has been used to describe our almost-year spent in lockdown where the days have blended together and the passing of time has started to lose meaning. So on this Groundhog Day, let’s flex our brains and think about those big questions. Like in classic philosophical inquiry, I will pose questions and attempt to answer them with Groundhog Day as my source material. (And in doing such, I will have made my year-long philosophy requirement from college worth it!)
Are our lives completely insignificant?
The biggest philosophical principle that Groundhog Day operates on is existentialism. Dating back to the 19th and 20th centuries, existentialism centers on the lived experience of the individual and how one copes with the anxiety and often absurdity of the world. Søren Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism, believed the primary virtue was that the individual, not society or religion, is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it authentically. Compared to nihilism, which believes that life is essentially meaningless, existentialism believes that we must persist through the angst and the absurd.
Think about your day-to-day life (even pre-COVID). Every day is pretty much the same with only marginal differences. Maybe it’s a weekend, maybe it’s raining, maybe you have a date, but broadly, our days are the same. And that can be a depressing thought. We’re all Sisyphus, pushing the rock up the hill, just waiting for it to roll back down. But as Rita, who serves as the somewhat naive point of reflection in Groundhog Day, says to Phil when he tries to explain what’s happening to him, “Maybe it’s not a curse. Just depends on how you look at it.”
Our lives are what we make out of them. If we believe them to be insignificant, then they will be. If we believe that we can imbue value to the world around us, then we will. And the beauty is that not every day has to be significant. Part of being responsible for your life’s meaning is to live authentically. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get to the next question.
Does anything we do matter?
Phil Connors lives the same day over and over and over again. Some days he’s reckless, other days he tries to memorize information to later seduce women with, and other days he’s just an asshole who’s fed up with his monotonous existence. But (spoiler alert) he does get to February 3. His last February 2 is spent giving money to a homeless man, bringing his colleagues coffee, gifting Wrestlemania tickets to a young couple, and replacing a flat tire for a car of old women. He does things for others. Phil starts out the film as an egocentric, curmudgeonly middle-aged man but is able to transcend his eternal recurrence by belonging to the community that he’s in. So, to answer the question, yes.
Will there always be things out of our control?
One of the low points of the film is when Phil tries and tries again to save the life of a homeless man but he dies again and again. He can manipulate everything else in his existence based on his experience of the days he’s lived before, but no matter what Phil does, he cannot save the man. So yes, there will always be things that we cannot control.
The hustle culture we live in is about learning to maximize our time and efficiency to create “perfect” days. Just think about all of the morning routines that are on YouTube and IGTV. Groundhog Day asks us to push against that line of thinking. The film is about the process of learning and failing. Phil spends years learning the piano and perfecting card tricks, but those are not what gets him to February 3. Sure, he uses his piano-playing ability to perform at the Groundhog Day party and he’s able to sculpt a likeness of Rita’s face in the snow. Those enhance his day, but it’s his generosity and humility that finally allows him to transcend the loop.
Even though we’re still in our Groundhog Day lives, I hope we can all take something from Phil: life isn’t about learning to be perfect, it’s about learning to fail in a way that brings you closer and closer to living authentically.
Call To Action
-Watch Groundhog Day: It plays on repeat on a few cable channels every year, or you can rent it if you have Amazon Prime. Even if you’ve seen it before, it takes on new depths every time.
-Want to learn more about philosophy? Crash Course breaks down the important stuff into digestible videos.
–Sabrina Serani, Content Creator